At first glance, a precise replica of the iconic Parthenon smack dab in the middle of Nashville greenspace seems to be an oddity. But there it is, overlooking the vast acreage of Centennial Park and surrounded by gardens, athletic courts, events shelter, band shell and more.
Then you learn the story behind the enormous structure, and you say, “Of course,” and you come to admire the dedication and enthusiasm of the Nashvillians who made it happen. Director and head goddess Wesley Paine gave us a tour during a recent media trip. Here’s how it all unfolded:
Tennessee became the 16th state of the union in 1786. To celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1887, the six-month Centennial and International Exposition was staged in Nashville. The highly successful event showcased exhibits and architectures as well as a midway with games and rides. Visitors toured renditions of a Great Pyramid, Moorish castle and Chinese village.
“These buildings probably were not very accurate, but they might be the only foreign exposure some visitors would ever have,” Blaine said.
Nashville’s contribution was the Fine Arts building, a full-scale reproduction of the Parthenon in Athens. The city had already acquired the nickname, “Athens of the South,” in recognition of its commitment to the classical ideals of education and art. The building was meant to be temporary but was so popular, the city decided to keep it as an arts center. Gradually, the building fell into disrepair. A 10-year reconstruction program fortified the structure inside and outside, and the Parthenon re-opened in 1931.
The original Parthenon in Athens, Greece, was completed in 438 B.C. and is widely regarded as the finest example of Greek architecture. It was conceived as a temple dedicated to the Athena, the mythical goddess of wisdom and protector of cities. The temple underwent transformations as a Christian church and a mosque before being nearly destroyed during the Great Turkish War in 1687. It lay in ruins for several centuries but is currently undergoing restoration.
At the Nashville Parthenon, the entire upper floor is primarily open space bordered by a colonnade on two sides. It was designed according to “what we think it could have looked like in antiquity,” Blaine said.
For half a century, the space lacked one important feature known to exist in the original Parthenon: a colossal 42-foot statue of the goddess herself. The money simply wasn’t there to build one, so a small statue was substituted. After a multi-year community fundraising campaign, local artist Alan LeQuire was commissioned to create the full-scale replica of Athena. The project took exhaustive research and eight years to complete.
Well, almost complete. Money ran out before the statue could be gilded, so it stood pure white for 12 years. In 2002, the gilding and other color details were added.
The Nashville Parthenon today serves as the city’s art museum. Its galleries display both permanent and changing exhibits. The permanent exhibits include memorabilia and photographs from the 1897 Exposition, a collection of paintings by 19th and 20th Century American artists, and plaster reproductions of pediment sculptures from the original Parthenon.
And now the Nashville Parthenon doesn’t seem so odd at all. It’s a grand work of architecture to behold and a Music City icon.
2500 West End Avenue
Nashville, TN 37203
(Many thanks to Visit Music City for hosting my visit to Nashville!)